Who’s (re)Building America

“We’ve had a lot of Spanish-speaking workers. I say, ‘Thank Heaven for them.’ We’d be a lot further from recovering if it weren’t for them.”

As we’ve been told, Mexico and Central America are sending “not their best” across the border into the U.S. We are being overwhelmed by drug gangsters and rapists, according to the current occupant of the White House. Well, maybe not overwhelmed, exactly.

A new recovery-and-reconstruction work force has developed to keep pace with the more frequent and more severe weather events. (Nothing to do with climate change!) Like migrant agricultural workers following the crops, this emerging workforce is also mobile, following disasters: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Houston after Harvey; North Carolina after Florence; Florida after Irma and Michael. Much of the cleanup and rebuilding is the work of laborers and craftspeople who entered the country illegally.

In areas where voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for the anti-immigration Republican candidate in the last presidential election, residents are curiously unconcerned about the influx of immigrants, many, if not most, undocumented. Employers find it easy to renege on paying the wages promised and for landlords to charge exorbitant rents for barely-habitable residences. The workers’ fear of deportation, makes them afraid to take action. Employers disclaim knowledge or responsibility of wage theft, claiming defrauded workers were hired by a subcontractor of a subcontractor of the prime contractor.

Another promise from the 2016 campaign: “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program” — visas for technical and skilled employees — “and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.” That “no exceptions” didn’t include H-2B visas, the ones hotels and resorts, e.g. Mar-a-Lago, use to hire low-paid seasonal workers.

Way back in 1980, the Trump Organization hired a contractor to demolish a property in mid-town Manhattan to make room for a garish high-rise to be named Trump Tower. The contractor hired two-hundred undocumented Polish laborers. They worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The laborers were paid $4 to $5 per hour with no overtime. (Some ended up not paid at all.) It was all “off the books,” so no payments to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, workers compensation on behalf of the so-called “Polish Brigade.”

The union that held a contract sued the contractor, a union leader and Trump, claiming they were owed excess of $1 million for their pension fund. Trump took the classic business leader posture: He didn’t know they were illegals and weren’t paid properly. The court ruled in 1991 that Trump owed $325,000 plus interest. Trump appealed. Since he claimed to have no knowledge of the illegalities, Trump averred he would not settle out of court “on principle.” Before the trial, the parties settled out of court. The agreement was sealed, so the actual settlement amount is unknown.

Chinese work crew

Way back further, to Sonoma County of the 1870s. Sonoma, known lately for fine wines and wildfires, back then was in the beginnings of its development of diverse agriculture: prunes, hops, cherries, apples and wine grapes as well as dairy, chicken and eggs. (We won’t mention politics and Sonoma’s support of the Confederacy in the Civil War. In 2016, the county went 71% for Hillary.)

The Chinese were the first wave of workers to arrive. After mining gold and building railroads, they came to work in the orchards and fields of Sonoma. Their time was short. The Chinese Exclusion movement and resulting legislation in the 1880s resulted in the Chinese population’s dispersal.
Italian immigrants followed. They soon owned land and became a permanent fixture in the county. The Japanese who came after, in spite of prohibitions against Asian land ownership, settled in and grew apples and chicken on leased land. They also provided farm labor for others. The internment camps of World War II removed the Japanese until after the war when they trickled back and began to reclaim their place in the county’s patchwork of ethnicity.


Today, seasonal workers in Sonoma and Napa are almost exclusively Latino, legacy of the Bracero Program, an agreement between Mexico and the U.S. The pattern repeats; newcomers are meet with resentment from those who arrived earlier. Documented or not, as a group, Latinos have woven themselves into the area’s tapestry. Over time, it will be the same in the red states of the Southeast.

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